Jesse Berst: How Sun and Microsoft are slowing us down

If you tour the historic Pittock Mansion in Portland, Ore., you'll notice two old-time phones on the wall.

If you tour the historic Pittock Mansion in Portland, Ore., you'll notice two old-time phones on the wall. Turn-of-the-century Portland had two incompatible phone companies. To reach everybody in town, early residents had to own two different phones.

Fast forward to today.

Most electronic devices can't talk to each other. But they should. Unhappily, today's technology barons can't agree on a standard. Sun's Jini and Microsoft's Universal Plug and Play are battling for dominance in the new connected world. And the fight is slowing progress, just the way it did in Portland's early days.

Jini and UPnP are the most prominent examples of "distributed computing" or "ubiquitous computing" -- the idea that computing power will be scattered around in small, self-contained modules. Some of those modules will live on computer networks. Others will live inside small devices. And all of them will be able to talk to each other and work together.

Today, if an application wants to print, it must contain printing code. Tomorrow, it will just need to know how to talk to a printer. The self-containing printing module will do the rest. That's the promise, anyway. And it is Sun Microsystems who is doing most of the promising, under the umbrella of its Jini initiative. Jini holds great promise. Here's what it has going:

  • Developers are taking notice

  • Businesses and consumers see benefits such as no new cables

  • Some big names like Canon, Epson and Toshiba are on board (on paper at least)

  • No need for complex software drivers

Microsoft pushes its rival UPnP for some valid reasons. It offers:

  • Use of existing standards

  • Independence from network type

  • Device neutrality

  • Support from HP, Cisco and AT&T among others

Drawbacks: Both are under development or about to enter the early-adopter phase. Jini still has not won strong support from some big names, notably IBM, Oracle and HP. Microsoft has to overcome misgivings about its previous Plug and Play effort, which was a mediocre effort at best. Can the Redmondians get it right on this one? More importantly, can Microsoft make the necessary philosophical shift? With Jini ubiquitous computing, centralized computers and networks lose control. Small computers, devices and services work as an alliance rather than a hierarchy. Will UPnP fit into that scheme? I doubt it.

Just like the phones in the Pittock Mansion, we may have two competing systems for a while. It means this great concept of ubiquitous computing will suffer from slow acceptance until there is a single standard. It's ironic the two companies at the forefront of the revolution are actually slowing us down.